09.27.09

Albright's Pin Diplomacy

The former secretary of State, who once telegraphed diplomatic messages by wearing carefully selected pins, talks to Rebecca Dana about her new book on her extraordinary pin collection, Sarah Palin’s pins, and more.

Madeleine Albright was sitting in a corner office on the eighth floor of the Museum of Arts and Design one recent afternoon, enjoying the view of Central Park on a glorious September day. She wore a simple black pantsuit, a light dusting of makeup, and, on her left shoulder, some serious bling: a gleaming golden sunflower, covered in what looked like diamonds, about the size of a human fist.

This was not some ultra-precious heirloom brooch or delicate lapel pin. It was a statement piece worthy of the State Department. “It reflects my mood,” Albright says, cheerfully. “And it’s utilitarian in terms of being able to do carry-on luggage.”

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Albright’s Pins

The former secretary of State has been traveling a lot lately, facing down airport security with a bag full of colorful pins to brighten up her wardrobe. The accessory came to be her trademark during her years in the Clinton administration, when she developed a habit of wearing carefully selected pins to telegraph messages during diplomatic missions. “When I was in a good mood, I wore flowers and butterflies and suns,” she says, “and when we were about to do something nasty, I had bugs and bees and things like that.”

In association with the Museum of Arts and Design, Albright has a new exhibit and book out this week showcasing about 200 highlights from her vast collection and telling the story of how many were acquired and when they were worn. The project is called Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, a reference to a little quip she used to make to reporters, a callback to the first President Bush’s famous “Read my lips…” line.

Albright has about 300 pins in total, ranging from small, abstract designs to large, gem-encrusted zebras, lions, birds, and bugs. There is all manner of Americana, from “Vote for Jimmy Carter” and “Barack Obama for President” buttons to a bejeweled Mickey Mouse, with a pearl on his head, bells on his feet, and a shiny Uncle Sam top hat in his right hand. There are at least eight spider pins, many dragonflies, frogs, pianos, leopards, wind instruments, bears, and turtles, plus a scorpion, a pink pig, and a big kangaroo (with a baby kangaroo in its pouch). There is a lovely blue pin in the shape of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a gold UFO with three aliens dangling from hooks.

“When I look at how many I have, I think, ‘Oh my goodness!’” Albright says.

Jewelry has been used in diplomacy at least since ancient Rome, when Cleopatra, no stranger to accessorizing, is said to have dropped a priceless pearl in a vat of acid on a challenge from Marc Antony. What distinguishes Albright’s collection from, say, the British crown jewels is its democratic character. She acquired her pins at flea markets, antique stores, and little boutiques, and chose them not because of their value as collectibles but because “some of them just speak to me and say: ‘Buy me! Buy me!’”

“Most of them are costume jewelry,” she says. “It’s not kind of an elaborate collection with fancy jewels. Most of the pins are replaceable in some form or another.”

Her interest in pins began innocently enough, when as a Wellesley girl she was “pinned” by her beau Joe Albright, a handsome Theta Delta Xi she’d met when both were working summer jobs at The Denver Post. Preferring pins to pearls or other accessories, Albright accumulated others over the course of her married life, including her most cherished one: a ceramic heart made by her daughter Katie at age 5, given to her on Valentine’s Day.

It was only after her divorce, when Albright began her career in government, that the pins took on additional meaning and collecting them became more of an active pursuit. As President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, and later as the first female secretary of State, she was “very conscious of being the only woman” and relied on the pins to bring some fun and femininity without drawing unwelcome scrutiny of her wardrobe.

“The hard part here is how to balance not having your clothes talked about and having some fun,” she says. “It’s a no-win. The truth is, I wished I had looked better in pants then. Because there are times that you—getting out of cars is not simple in a skirt. And sitting on a stage is not simple in a skirt. And getting on a helicopter is not simple in a skirt. I remember sitting on stages and pulling down my skirt and trying to figure out how to sit there. It’s a no-win situation. People would either say that my hems were too high or to low or whatever.”

Albright’s “pin diplomacy” began as an accident. During her term as U.N. ambassador, in the period following the first Gulf War, she criticized Saddam Hussein for refusing to fully disclose Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. In response to the criticism, an Iraqi state-run newspaper published a poem calling Albright an “unparalleled serpent.” “I happened to have a snake pin,” Albright says, “so from then on, I wore it when we were doing Iraq things. And I thought, ‘Well, this is fun.’ And so, when I was in New York, the mecca of everything, I went out and bought a bunch of costume jewelry that reflected, I thought, a bunch of what we were going to do.”

She wore a wasp pin to one round of negotiations with Yasser Arafat and a golden “peace dove” given to her by Yitzhak Rabin’s wife, Leah, to visit the victims of genocide in Rwanda. She wore an entire jazz band on her shoulder to a ceremony honoring Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Her staff had a pin made for her in the shape of a small cluster of mushrooms because, during a difficult period in Middle East peace talks, she used to brush off journalists’ questions by saying, “Sometimes diplomatic talks, like mushrooms, grow better in the dark.”

Though an avid pin-wearer herself, Albright says she found the controversy around whether Barack Obama wore a flag pin during his presidential campaign “crazy.” She had no comment on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s elaborate use of pins during the campaign, including the ornate, jeweled American flag she wore to the vice-presidential debate. “I had more problems with being misquoted by her,” Albright says. (The reference is to a quote of Albright’s about there being “a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other,” which Palin repeated, changing “help” to “support.”)

These days, Albright has become so well-known for her pins, which she stores in a shoe bag in her closet when they’re not on display in a museum, that people come up to her in airports and on the street to talk about them. One of her most treasured pieces came from a man in New Orleans who lost his mother during Hurricane Katrina. The pin, made of amethysts and diamonds, was a gift from his father to his mother on their 50th wedding anniversary.

Now that many are in the exhibit, friends and strangers have been giving her “pity pins” to wear until her own are returned. “Yesterday, for instance, I was walking around and somebody gave me a pin that said, ‘Chicks Rock,’” she says. “So, I think that’s kind of fun.”

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Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.